New infestations force famously bedbug-free Korea to declare war on the pests

Posted on : 2023-11-10 17:16 KST Modified on : 2023-11-10 17:16 KST
An uptick in international travel to Korea is likely behind the resurgence of the bloodsucking bugs that Korea more-or-less eradicated in the 1960s
A bedbug rests on the glove of a pest exterminator in Paris, France, in September. (Reuters/Yonhap)
A bedbug rests on the glove of a pest exterminator in Paris, France, in September. (Reuters/Yonhap)

South Korea, a famously bedbug-free country for more than half a century, has recently been teeming with news of bedbug outbreaks. Foreign media appear to be taking a special interest in the background of the outbreaks and the measures taken by the South Korean government.

The UK’s Guardian reported on Wednesday that a bed bug “infestation is causing panic in a country that had practically rid itself of the nocturnal bloodsuckers,” adding that the government has declared a “war” on the pests.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that bugs “unfamiliar to South Koreans” were stirring public panic.

In South Korea, bedbugs were so common in the 1960s that people traveling between Seoul and the provinces by train would complain that they couldn’t sleep on the train because of the pests. However, a government-led national bedbug eradication campaign appeared to have worked, and the problem seemed to be in Korea’s rear-view mirror.

In the 10 years since 2014, there have been only nine reports of bedbugs. However, as the number of bedbug reports has increased rapidly in recent years, especially in Seoul and Incheon, areas overseas that have long been battling the bugs, namely the UK and France, have taken an interest in how Korea is dealing with the nuisances.

On Nov. 3, Korea began an all-out campaign to rid the country of the biting bugs, activating a joint governmental headquarters made up of 10 ministries and agencies for dealing with the bugs and even creating an information guide about bedbugs. “As bedbugs are averse to light, quietly entering a dark room and quickly shining a flashlight can help you find bedbugs as they attempt to crawl away and hide somewhere dark,” the guide suggests.

The reappearance of bedbugs in South Korea is being attributed to the influx of tourists from abroad after the easing of COVID-19 pandemic measures. Others believe that the bugs may have spread through parcel boxes from China, the UK and elsewhere as international parcel delivery has become more popular.

Globally, bedbugs are one of the most common pests. The most recent Bugs Without Borders study (2018) from the National Pest Management Association, a private, non-profit organization in the US, found that 97% of pest professionals had exterminated bed bugs in 2017, and 71% of pest control calls were for bedbugs. Bedbugs were found in homes, schools, daycare centers, hospitals and public transportation, as well as on dolls, wheelchairs, purses and beds.

Bedbugs are 5- to 6-millimeter bugs that feed on human blood once or twice a week, and can consume up to six times their body weight in 10 minutes. Bedbug bites are usually itchy, but in rare cases, they can cause a high fever and an inflammatory response. Even if you don’t get bitten, the mere thought of bedbugs can make you feel like the creepy crawlies are all over you. Some people who suffer from “bedbug anxiety” report unnecessary fear, anxiety, and even insomnia, even when there are no actual bedbugs present.

“If we are scared, anxious, or grossed out by something, our body goes on high alert to detect that potential ‘threat,’” clinical psychologist Dr. Heather Sequeira explained to the BBC.

In severe cases, the anxiety can lead to “bed bug trauma.” Some experts advise the public not to take bed bugs, one of the most common pests in the world, too seriously.

“We’ve been dealing with bedbugs in the US in a very big way since about the year 2000. Paris is the same; London is the same; Australia is the same – everyone’s had this resurgence. So it’s nothing new,” said Dr. Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an entomologist at Cornell University, adding that the bugs’ normal behavior has been sensationalized on social media, especially in Paris as the city prepares for the 2024 Olympics.

By Hong Seock-jae, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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